How do you take a portrait of a City? Can you snap a few photos of its monumental architecture: its market halls, strip malls, statuary, public landmarks and promenades? Is a snapshot in front of the Esplanade building closer to capturing the feeling of a city then a dead pest on road tar or the awning of the coffee shop?
Can a city be identified by a representative sample of its population, present in a community, culture or ethnicity of one sort or another as a “slice of city life?” Is it even possible to find and capture the essence of city or is this essence too diffused and complex for capture?
Does the idea of creating a city portrait ultimately lead you further afield? Would a multi-disciplinary approach get one nearer to understanding and representing a city? Can the use of film, field sound recordings, interviews, photographic snapshots and writing truly convey a sense-of-place? Or is the city too intricate an organism to describe in parts. Like the blind men and the elephant, we have to take the piece or pieces of the city that we know of before we explain it as an entire piece
This dilemma has been a constant in the works of theorists, filmmakers and artists alike. Many attempts have been made to resolve the problem. Terence Davies tries to answer this question in his film Of Time and the City. Its part documentary, part reflective essay, part love poem and part eulogy to his home city of Liverpool. Through a lengthy series of images and archival footage Davies gives us a vivid portrait of life and change in the English city. His narration is beautifully crafted, poetic (though in my opinion a tad self-indulgent at times) and most often powerful. The visual language too is a remarkable mix of stunning, lyrical, bleak, allegorical and nostalgic. Davies offers us an immensely personal reflection of the city’s history and soul through its urban metamorphosis.
In Of Time and The City, Davies eschews the cast , dialogue and narrative of his earlier films
There is also a prevalent element of class-conflict in his film. Davies never explicitly mentions social class in Of Time and the City but most of the archival footage shows a rural and suburban working-class life in the City. Footage of children on the streets, men in industries, washer-women and days at the beach tried to convey a raw slice-of-life in a no-frills kind of city. Throughout the film, Davies does occasionally take pot-shots at the British Monarchy and the Church and through his contrasting visuals of opulence along with the social and societal decay of the city. Also striking was the archival footage of cottage/row homes belonging to local workers being torn down to make way for the development of tower blocks.
Is Of Time and the City an appropriate example of a good cities portrait? It undeniably leads the audience to interesting paths and explorations from the landscape and to the streets and homes. For as complex an organism as cities tend to be, the audience ultimately experience them subjectively and in return their daily negotiations and experiences feed the city along with its inhabitants. Davies interpretation of growing up in Liverpool feeds us right into the history of this place, which is of course Davies’ Liverpool created from his subjectivity and subject-position. A city revived through his childhood memories and experiences. In doing as such, he successfully led the audience, especially myself, to comprehend the city as a whole.
“The Liverpool I grew up in has long gone, only the memory of it exist,
It’s really a city of the mind now” – Davies
In Of Time and The City, Davies eschews the cast , dialogue and narrative of his earlier films (Distant Voices, Still Lives (1998), The House of Mirth (2000), The Neon Bible (1995)) to create the texture of his past out of old archival footage of the city of Liverpool and the Merseyside area plus combined with additional footage Davies has filmed. Accompanying the footages is the juxtaposition of the soundtrack of him narrating in a wry and melancholy voice, his own words and poetry. He quotes great writers like Chekhov, Joyce, and Eliot; fragmented recordings of Liverpudlian voices; traces of old radio shows; and a wide array of music ranging from Peggy Lee and the Hollies to Handel and Mahler. The resulting composition rather sensual and poetic than analytical — intimately evoking memories of Davies’s growing up as a gay, Catholic, movie-besotted, working-class outsider in Liverpool.
The film has as much to do with the director’s psyche and sensibility than with Liverpool itself. Still, the city is what the camera focuses on. The audience witness a tough working-class, a heavily industrialised port city dominated by railways, factories, sulphurous air and longshoremen in cloth caps. As if glorifying the proletariats as the visuals barely reveals the middle-class sections of the city. What Davies repetitively evokes are the mean smoke-filled, narrow cobblestone streets where the working-class families dwell in narrow back to back house terraces and in decaying brick tenements; their children sometimes playing in squalid, rugged, untidy, rubble-filled lots. But these images of communal streets with eternally wet pavements, of housewives on their knees scrubbing their stoops or doing the chores at the municipal laundry, of men making their rounds, and young girls and boys innocently playing street games are pieced together in such a vivid way, with a soprano singing incandescently in the background, that the director’s memories become sublime.
Davies also remembers a Liverpool where football matches attracted incredible crowds, and the Orange Parade marchers howled against Papists. He highlighted simple pleasures like funfairs, and day trips to the seaside at New Brighton with its bathing-beauty contests, deck chairs, and dancing, and there were the shows and cinemas that he attended regularly, notably the Hollywood musicals that he loved and “swallowed whole.” Interestingly, Davies also recalls the scandalous priests and corrupt officials who were never punished or accounted for during the same period when gay individuals were arrested, persecuted and imprisoned. For a young boy who was fully conscious and adamant on his sexuality, the trauma had left its mark.
It’s a city whose churches have already been turned into discotheques, whose promenades and streets are dull and empty of people, and much of its new construction and landscape consists of sterile office buildings and parking garages.
The director’s narration doesn’t always follow a linear course, it goes back and forth in time, contrasting between the old and new Liverpool. In the film there is no illusion about the past, but the narrator is clearly turned off by modern Liverpool, whose less economically desperate inhabitants are felt to by him to be wanting. It’s a city whose churches have already been turned into discotheques, whose promenades and streets are dull and empty of people, and much of its new construction and landscape consists of sterile office buildings and parking garages. Davies’s boyhood world may have been constricted, but the film clearly declares that the modern city of Liverpool has utterly destroyed both its proud history and the communal warmth that it had once enjoyed
Using a set of telling and striking images, Davies vents his greatest antipathy towards the public housing towers that had made promises of a paradise to the working class population but instead, as the images shows, had built slums. In this irony no narration was needed as the visuals convey everything. The new homogenized buildings, beer cans in the elevator, rubbish and graffiti in the halls, grass growing through the cracks in the pavement; are symbolisms that emanate only despair and desolation. The director’s other villain in the film being the Catholic Church; of which his life closely revolves around as a child. So damaging was his relationship with them that in the film he enunciates that it was all a lie and that his time and effort on prayers were a complete waste. Davies views the church as an unforgiving institution, for he was so yearning of grace that he could never disclose his homosexuality to the priest.
Of Time and The City is a passage of time. Davies’s images are acutely conscious of ageing; telling from the numerous images of old men and women, as well as what that is lost as years pass. He refuses to yield to the night, but he is profoundly aware of his mortality. The film functions like a personal love letter to the city that had shaped Davies, but also one that he had to leave. The construction of luminous, visual, and aural images, reverberate an effect that is as much emotional as it is aesthetic.
Terence Davies describes that there is a sense of loss to his childhood in the city. It is his personal essay, on the subject of Liverpool, within the nature of time and memory. How did the concept materialize? The template for his vision came from Humphrey Jennings Listen to Britain (1942); a world war two British propaganda film produced by the British government to support the country’s war effort. The film applies contrasting images of mine, mill, field, and sea, and linked them with the overlapping natural sounds and music of wartime Britain. It’s a film that captures the poetry of people taking pleasure, stoically sitting in the sun in Trafalgar Square, as they are enveloped in great national anxiety. This same poetry will resonate in Davie’s Of Time and the City. Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain is also noted for its non-linear structure as well as its use of sound and Terrence Davies is noted to have had his influence derived from its impressionistic form. Davies’s concern was not in what that’s going to happen next, but rather, what that’s going to emotionally happen next as it is something that is more visceral and associative. He compares it to music. When a musical note is resolved to its major or minor key, the listener feels satisfied. Similarly, with memory, if it’s a cyclical and non-linear event it helps to uncover other memories within the viewer. Davies had intended for the film to be a poetry of the ordinary as in his view, ordinary people have poetry Irregardless of social class. Each one just as valid as the next one, such is the extent of his reverence upon the people.
Davies articulates the notion that we are at the mercy of time.
The images in the film preceded the narration. As mentioned, Davies had wrote his commentary as the images unfolded while he was cutting the film. At times there were not any need for narration as the silence was sufficiently implicit and powerful. There was no process behind the music; Davies admits that it was naturally instinctive each time he responds to an image such that both image and music moves to counterpoint one another. There exist a repetitive element of images involving children in the middle of their street games and song skipping as well as images of the old-aged and bent. These were people that Davies sympathetically identify with plus also since the film is about time and mortality. Also, the child’s-eye perspective that pervades throughout Of Time and the City can be explained by Davies’s viewpoint of how profoundly a child absorbs the world every single day through his/her discoveries of everything in his/her environment all the time. It is undeniable that the paramount key to the beauty of the film is the Davies’s childhood memory.
Another significant element would be the pulling down of row houses and tenements followed by their replacements by the local council estates. It expresses Davies’s utter dismay towards the lie by the authorities that they were to improve lives whereby the resulting fact was the damaging culture and social implosion in the city.
One of the most profound experiences from the film would be the passage of time. Davies articulates the notion that we are at the mercy of time. He tries to create a sense of over the randomness of time remembered from one emotional moment to another instead of depicting everything in a linear fashion. Equally critical to this aspect would be the key instrument that is critical in the progression of emotions in the film; that is the poetry behind the narration. Davies describes it as an emotional investment. He himself had been writing poetry for the twenty years prior to the films production. It is the fusion of nostalgia and comedy as it involves Davies’s personal memories with his mother, family and everything in his childhood that was gone. For example one of his intense memories was the horse race called the Grand National that was broadcasted over the wireless. In it was the details of his mother’s bet and reaction to the event that pulled his heartstrings.
There is definitely a formal structure despite the non-linear style of presentation. But does that form compliments a genre of documentary or fiction? Davies insists that the aesthetics are the same, the difference though are the practical elements in the film. In fiction, one dictates the final content before principal filming begins. For a documentary in the other hand, the content reveals itself over time as you create it. You don’t find the subtext, rather the subtext finds you.
Terrence Davies believes that in film, the audience are embarking upon a journey whereas in television; the audience are instead dictated where to go. In Of Time and the City, it is a journey, albeit an emotional one. The film acts like an emotional smell that reignites memories to viewers who shares a history and fascination with the city. The music, visuals, poetic narration and its successful artistic juxtaposition altogether pulls into place an experience of longing and nostalgia over the city. These elements along with the film’s unity are the forms of art that connected the audience to the film Irregardless if they Liverpudlian or not. The universal appeal behind As Time and the City is the result of these strongly yet simplistic and identifiable dots and details of childhood, chores and change despite the film’s subjective disposition.
Khusoiry Misuary is a Level Two student who is in preparation to produce a Diploma Film, Double Bed this semester (Jan 2012).
Remembering Liverpool: An Interview with Terence Davies from Cinesaste by Leonard Quart http://www.cineaste.com/articles/remembering-liverpool-an-interview-with-terence-davies
Of Time And The City: Terence Davies’ Liverpool Memories by Richard Corliss http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1897783,00.html
Of Time And The City: A Film Essay by Terence Davies by Jose Luis Moctezuma http://www.hydramag.com/2009/12/08/of-time-and-the-city-a-film-essay-by-terence-davies/
Of Time And The City Interview with Terence Davies by Emmanuel Levy http://www.emanuellevy.com/interview/of-time-and-city-interview-with-terence-davies-4/
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